Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is an upstart that moves to the big time, becoming the most powerful voice on radio to the most powerful figure on television, able to sway the masses for or against anything he wishes with not much more than a wink and a smile. He has no personal beliefs, only contempt for anything and everyone who isn't Lonesome Rhodes. He's a scoundrel, a cheat and, by the end of it all, he's washed up, madness slowly taking over.
Elia Kazan and Budd Schulburg's scathing commentary on the dangers of mass media and particularly charismatic but absolutely bat-shit crazy personalities' abilities to exploit that media, is as timely today as it ever was. Not only is the film itself an omen of things to come - notably the rise of 24-hour news networks and the triumph of "commentary" over actual journalism - but the character of Lonesome is uncannily like some of the personalities of a lot of "news" shows. And he makes boatloads of cash like some of them, too.
In the middle of the film, it looks like Rhodes is going to marry his agent, Marcia (the fantastic Patricia Neal), but instead he brings home a new bride (Lee Remick) from a visit back to his hometown that won a baton twirling contest. The scene in which Rhodes slowly becomes enamored with the incredibly young twirler - who is only 16 at the time of their marriage - is disturbing in the development of the character because of his constant leering and visible lusting after the young girl. Amazingly, she's just as into him, glaring right back the entire time in that lustful way that most teenagers get at one time or another. It's creep-tastic!
It's amazing to me that Griffith, whose portrayal of Rhodes is a highlight of screen acting, committed so wholeheartedly to such a loathsome character and then did a complete 180 to make and star in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. As good as he is on television, here he's pure fire, and I was unable to take my eyes off him. He's a revelation, by god, in a role that should have been career-defining, but has only recently been given any attention whatsoever. Only in America would such a piece of work be virtually forgotten by audiences for over thirty years.
A FACE IN THE CROWD also features my personal favorite hang-dog, Walter Matthau, in full glory as television writer "Vanderbilt '44", as Rhodes derisively calls him, being a representative of the elite that Lonesome purports to have nothing but disdain for, yet longs for the status of. Matthau gets the last stinging word in, though, charting the total fall of Rhodes's celebrity and even giving him a last round of (canned) applause. If only things had changed at all since 1957.